Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A male Atlantic salmon. Thousands were accidentally released off Washington’s coast.

By Marcy Stamper

Although the thousands of Atlantic salmon released when commercial nets ruptured are a long way from the mouth of the Columbia River — the portal to headwaters in the Methow Valley — state agencies responding to the crisis are proceeding as if it’s a real possibility that some fish could enter the Columbia.

“Concerns run the gamut. We’re treating it as a serious environmental incident,” said Cori Simmons, public information officer for the multi-agency incident command handling the spill.

Cooke Aquaculture notified the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) on Aug. 19 of the failure of a net pen near Anacortes that held about 305,000 Atlantic salmon. Current estimates of the number of fish released range from 4,000 to 185,700, according to WDFW.

“The Columbia River is so far from the location of this accident that it hasn’t even come up,” said Bruce Botka, a spokesman for WDFW, one of three state agencies collaborating on the response. “It doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking about it, but we’re focused on recovery.”

Cooke Aquaculture, the company that has a permit to raise the salmon, is responsible for recovering the fish and salvaging the badly damaged containment structure, said Simmons. While there is no estimate about how long that part of the recovery will take, officials are hoping to accomplish most of the work during the low, slack tides this week, she said.

Most of the fish are congregating in the shallows in the sound near the pens, said Botka. Some fish have swum north toward the Strait of Georgia, and there are reports of fish caught in the Puget Sound, but the fish do not appear to be heading far south, he said.

Cooke Aquaculture produces eggs at a hatchery in Thurston County and transfers them north to the net pens. “These fish spend their lifetime in nets, so there’s none of that generic material that tells them to go to a place to spawn,” said Botka. “These are definitely not wild fish, and they’re not behaving like wild fish.”

Still, some of the salmon have headed toward freshwater. WDFW, tribal fisheries and Cooke Aquaculture are all working to recover those fish, said Botka.

After “catastrophic events” resulted in the spill of 591,000 Atlantic salmon in three consecutive years in the 1990s, a 1999 WDFW study conducted found that escaped fish were not colonizing local watersheds and had not significantly affected native fish.

The study found some evidence of naturally produced Atlantic salmon in streams on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, indicating that escaped Atlantic salmon are capable of successfully producing offspring in the wild.

Nevertheless, the researchers said, “To date, there is no evidence of a naturally-produced Atlantic salmon surviving in the wild to maturity and spawning. Much is still unknown about escaped Atlantic salmon in Washington.”

WDFW is encouraging anglers to catch as many Atlantic salmon as they can. The fish weigh 8 to 10 pounds and are safe to eat.

The Washington Department of Ecology is handling water-quality issues associated with the breach.

The cause of the net failure is still under investigation, said Simmons.